Part 2: DSLR camera accessories-image stabilization

In this part two examination of DSLR accessories, I look ways to outfit your camera to ensure stability of your video (see part one on the Juicedlink audio interface.)

I shoot primarily news video for my newspaper’s website using a Nikon D3s as a video camera. It captures only 720p HD video, not 1080p of the newer models, but it’s resolution perfect for most online delivery.

One of the issues I’ve had as I transitioned from shooting with a Sony EX1 video camera to now using a DSLR, was the stability of my video. When handholding a DSLR during a shoot, I founds it almost impossible to capture stable video. Because I couldn’t put the camera up to my eye when shooting in live view, the shaky-cam effect from holding the camera unsupported out in front of me was really pronounced. It made me realize  how much the optical stabilization on most traditional video cameras work to minimize camera vibration.

In putting my DSLR video camera kit together, I looked for the best lens I could find that would not only give me the zoom focal lengths I needed, but would also have built-in image stabilization. My final choice was the Nikon 24-120mm f/4 VR lens.

VR (vibration reduction) is Nikon’s version of the Canon’s IS (Image Stabilization.) Vibration Reduction (VR) systems in DSLR camera lenses compensate for image blur caused by small, involuntary movements from unsupported cameras.

I can attest that VR works. I’ve seen and shot a lot of handheld DSLR video that was so shaky it was unwatchable. Switching VR on will not make your footage look like it was shot on a tripod, but it will smooth it out considerably. In my video below, I used the Nikon 24-120mm with VR for the first time. I was pleased with the results. VR  allowed to  move with my subjects without encountering the jarring shake of typical handheld footage. I was most impressed with the clip of me running with the subject. No way would this look this smooth without VR.

The next accessory I use for stabilizing my DSLR video is the wonderful  Zacuto Z-Finder optical viewfinder that I attach to my camera’s rear viewing monitor. This allows me to press the eyepiece against the bridge of my shootin’ eye, which helps stabilize the camera–especially the up and down movement you get when holding the camera out in front of you. This, paired with the lens VR, really makes for some excellent looking handheld footage.

Finally, I can’t stress enough about having a solid tripod handy on EVERY shoot. I always try to use a tripod for long interviews. This allows me to spend time looking my subject in the eye, rather than hiding behind the camera monitor.

The best video tripods are ones that have a fluid head, which allows you to do smooth pan and tilt movements. I have three that I have access to, from small (light) to large (heavy.) The one thing that I have come to love about shooting with a tripod is that I can frame a shot and then shoot a three-shot sequence of wide, medium and tight ten second clips. When I edit, I have three different views to choose from—and best of all, they are all rock steady.

I could go on about camera rigs and such, but in my type of work, they are a bit much for what I do. As a one-man band, I find keeping it simple is the best hedge against missing shots and moments. One of the things that I don’t want to do is create the three-headed monster camera rig that would draw too much attention to myself.

In part three, I will look at the Zacuto Finder up close and a round-up of the other necessary accessories to outfit your DSLR to make it a bad ass video camera.

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Part 1: DSLR camera accessories-JuicedLink DT454 preamplifier

As I transition to shooting video stories with my DSLR camera, I have tried to mitigate the shortcomings of doing so. Truth is, a traditional video camera is so much easier to use. When I compare video shot with my Sony XDCAM EX1 with that of my Nikon D3s, the look is stunningly dissimilar. The EX1 is no slouch in image quality, it’s just that saturated, cinematic look you get from the massive full-frame Nikon sensor is so visually appealing.

In a previous post, I talked about the challenges of shooting a video story with a DSLR camera. My first few attempts went better than I expected, but the audio and focusing challenges were a huge issue for me to overcome. At the end of last year, instead of requesting a new camera from our remaining capital budget, I outfitted my D3s with a bunch filmmaking accessories.

First up was getting an audio interface to deal with the audio limitations of the DSLR. Video with a DSLR has always played second fiddle to the primary function of shooting stills. Many shooting with DSLRs use a dual-system audio, which means they record the audio with a separate digital audio recorder. The new high-quality waveform is then linked to the video in post. I found this method to be cumbersome and fraught with many chances to screw up or miss key audio storytelling moments. Many of the interviews I do are spontaneous, where I walk up and get quick remarks or sound bites from a subject. I have seen amazing DSLR camera rigs where filmmakers mount Zoom H4n recorders to the camera. It all seems a bit much to me.

My solution is to use an audio interface called a JuicedLink DT454 4-Channel DSLR Camera Microphone Preamplifier. It allows me to connect, via XLR inputs, my pro mics—a Sennheiser Me66 and Sennheiser G2 wireless. I have full control of adjusting my mic levels for each channel. I can also monitor the recording levels through the headphone jack, which is head-scratchingly missing on most DSLRs. It is thankfully changing now with on-camera headphone jacks in both the new Nikon D800 and D4 as well as the just announced Canon 5D Mark III.

The JuicedLink is pretty light and doesn’t get much in the way of shooting stills when needed. There is no problem mounting a tripod or a Zacuto Gorilla plate to the unit.

The things I don’t like are that you need an Allen wrench to bolt it to the bottom of the camera. It’s not easy to remove the unit in a hurry when you just want to shoot stills.  Another, is the on/off switch is about a flimsy as the come. Build quality construction runs from excellent to cheap. In fact the whole unit kind of looks like it was made in an inventors garage. There are other units out there, including this just announced Beachtek DXA-SLR Pro. The JuicedLink works especially well with Canon cameras as the unit can be calibrated to each model. With the Nikon cameras, I have only three in-camera mic sensitivities to choose from. Low, Medium and High. Low (1) I found it works best to prevent audio distortion. The unit comes with +48v phantom power, but I keep it switched off and just use battery power in my mics.  The JuicedLink uses a 9-volt battery and will drain much faster if it is in phantom power mode.

The bottom line, if you want to simplify gathering audio with a DSLR and be able to use your pro XLR mics then a JuiceLink or similar unit will give you that.

Part 2 coming soon: Getting stable DSLR video without a tripod.

Time to move to DSLR video

Being a Nikon shooter in a multimedia world has some disadvantages. In 2008, Nikon launched the D90, which was the first DSLR with the ability to shoot video as well as stills. The camera was rife with limitations. Without an audio mic jack, you could not use an external microphone to gather quality sound.  The Motion JPEG codec the D90 recorded in was a nightmare for Final Cut Pro to deal with. My newspaper bought two of these cameras on release. I played around with one, shrugged my shoulders, and went back to my Sony XDCAM EX1.

Then the shockwave hit a short time later when Canon released the 5D Mk II. With its full-frame sensor, 1920 x 1280p resolution and, hallelujah, a mic jack, photojournalists who resisted shooting video, were now intrigued. Shooters like Vincent LaForet have since built their careers promoting filmmaking with the 5D Mk II. Whole ecosystems of accessories to outfit the camera have blossomed. So what happened to Nikon’s response? Did their engineers shrug their shoulders like I did and move on to only service the consumer market? Over time, Nikon has added video capabilities to many of their cameras, but none have been able to meet or exceed the specifications of the Canon 5D Mk II.
During the last several years, I have sat on the sidelines, preferring to use my traditional video camera.  I kept telling myself that I would jump in when Nikon launched its 5D killer. I’m still waiting. Last year, I talked my editor into buying me the Nikon D3s. This amazing camera is unfortunately saddled with the same video 720 x 1280p resolution and Motion JPEG codec of the D90 and the Nikon D300s.

I have stewed as the newspaper photojournalism world embraced the entire Canon line with its superior video capabilities. Last year, Brian Immel and I founded Finding the Frame, a video critique website for multimedia storytellers. I started noticing something right away. Most of the videos uploaded had been shot with Canon DSLRs. I’ve noticed something else. The visual storytelling is way better than it was just two or three years ago. I attribute that to talented still photographers taking their composition, moment, and visual creativity with them in to the realm of DSLR video storytelling.

When I started this blog in January of 2008, video storytelling at newspapers was in full swing. It was a time when video cameras were being handed out to newsroom staff like candy. Little training and cameras in the hands of non-visual word folk led to some sad results.

The implosion at newspaper newsrooms over the last three years has showcased new realities when it comes to video. I think management finally understood that video storytelling takes time; so most of the consumer-level cameras given to reporters have gone into some drawer never to be seen again.  Photo staffs have been decimated too, but not the amount of work expected from them.  Video is still alive and well at newspapers. The transition from videotape cameras to DSLR based video has upped the expectations for photojournalists. One camera that can do it all has made the job of visual storytelling more exciting, but infinitely more complicated and challenging.

My time to stew is over. My time to wait for Nikon to up its game is over too. No, I’m not jumping to Canon. What I plan to do is to make the DSLR technology I do have work for me. Yesterday I put in a request that was approved to purchase accessories to will allow my Nikon D3s it function as a video camera better.  In the coming weeks and months I will explore on this blog my experiences as I make this transition to shooting video with a DSLR. Stayed Tuned!

The Nikon D3s is, like, WOW!

My new Nikon D3s arrived last Friday and I’m still kicking the tires.

This camera is one bad boy. Yesterday, I set my ISO at 4000 and left it there for three photo assignments. ISO 4000 looks like 800 did on my vintage Nikon D2h  of just a few years ago.

My newspaper has always been a Nikon shop. Though I was tempted by all the low-light Canon camera offerings of yore, management never blinked or gave my informed blathering much acknowledgement to make the switch. Now I’m glad they didn’t listen to me.  This camera kicks! In the past, when I needed to spin the ISO dial up to, say, ISO 3200, I would often regret the decision later. Noise in digital files looks horrible.

This camera easily handled 4000, and 6400 ISO. I haven’t needed to go higher on the account that I don’t need 500th of a second for an environmental portrait.

Take a look at this shot I did of my daughter Brenna, right, and her friend Shea.

I shot it on my living room floor with just lamplight at 6400 ISO in RAW. I tweaked the color to get the skin tones right and made just basic Adobe CS5 RAW converter adjustments. If I had shot this with my D2h, it would have noise the size of gravel.

This camera will open many new low-light avenues for me and any other shooter lucky enough to get their hands on one.  I had to go through Nikon Professional Services to find one. I’m told they are as elusive as unicorns.

The next thing for me to tackle is the whole DSLR video learning curve. I have shot video for five years. My Sony Z-1U and XDCAM EX-1 have served me well.  Lately, I’ve been feeling I’m on the outside looking in as the Canon 5D Mk II has dominated  the video gear spotlight.

Mostly, I suspect, for the look of the files coming out of these cameras. Shallow depth-of-field is all the rage, but at what cost? Audio is a DSLR camera’s Achilles heel. The contraptions DP’s and video producers are building to make these cameras work gives me pause.

If I was the subject of a story and someone came at me with a steering wheel contraption laden with mics, lights and other paraphernalia,  I’d probably freeze up like a deer in headlights.

So my toe dipping starts with the limited video capabilities of the D3s. It has been much maligned for not shooting in the higher resolution of 1920p that Canon cameras do. This doesn’t really concern me. The test files I’ve shot so far look better than anything that comes out of my XDCAM. The huge full-frame sensor in the D3s makes shooting in the dark a breeze. Its 720p file size is just about right for the web-based video storytelling I do.  I have to compress the hell out of the videos I shoot, so the huge files from a 5D Mk II will only slow my edit down. I’m not planning to shoot any Hollywood movies, so I’m cool with the Nikon’s smaller file size for now. Of course, in a few months, my camera will probably be rendered obsolete by the rumored Nikon D4. Such is life of a techno geek.

New Canon 5D Mark II shoots HD video!

Update: See links to video samples at the end of this post.

Ok, the rumor mill can stop now. Just after midnight, Canon USA announced the much anticipated EOS 5D Mark II digital SLR. This is the full-frame camera that multimedia producers and photojournalists have been waiting for. Yes, it has a new 21.1 megapixel CMOS sensor with new low noise capabilities. But what sets this digital camera apart is that it shoots HD video onto CF cards. I know what you’re going to say. Nikon beat Canon to the punch with its introduction of the Nikon D90 last month. What I and a lot of other visual journalists wanted in that camera was a mic jack to plug an external microphone into. Canon engineers listened. Finally we have the full meal deal. This from the Canon press release:

Answering the question of where SLR technology is going next, the EOS 5D Mark II features 16:9 Full HD video capture at 1920 x 1080 pixels and 30 fps as well as 4:3 standard TV quality (SD) video capture at 640 x 480 pixels and 30 fps, both capabilities appearing for the first time in a Canon SLR camera. Video capture is part of the camera’s Live View function, using the Picture Style that has been set for Live View still image shooting. This allows skilled photographers and cinematographers to adjust image sharpness, contrast, color saturation and white balance, and have those settings apply to the movie image…The new camera features an input terminal for external stereo microphones as well as a built-in monaural microphone for convenience.

My question is what impact will a camera like this have on newspaper photography departments? No longer will photojournalists need to take a video and a still camera on the same assignment. Will we all become overworked, or energized by this new creative tool? As photo departments do more work for their growing online departments, this camera, I believe, and the ones that follow, will give visual journalists a new and powerful storytelling tool. Wow.

Update: Check out Vincent LaForet’s Blog. He got to spend 72 hours shooting with the Canon 5D Mark II

Here is a link to a Canon page with actual video samples